Buy a van while you still can, or: Meandering Dreck on the Working Class and Whitey

When I bought Big Maybelle, my grandpa-spec two-tone 1988 F-350, to take the place of a Harley Sportster as my main mode of transportation in the dawning days of 2017 when things were really starting go tetas to the heavens for humanity, my then-boss the great Ken Rich thought me a fool. So did everyone else. For who buys a wide, six-wheeled, oil-fired, standard-shift pickup truck nearly as old as oneself with broken air conditioning for daily use in Los Angeles but a fool such as I? Between bellows of laughter and calling it a broken down old piece of shit, which it was, Kenny thought I ought to have got a van. Come on. A van? What was I, a British housepainter? Other than Sammy Johns, who had ever written a song about a van? I was staunchly anti-van. Nuts to vans. I’m an American man. Give me a truck. Right?

I hadn’t—and still haven’t fully—disabused myself of the typical gearhead ethos that one buys a vehicle with the heart, and possibly the gonads, as much as or more than the brain. Vans weren’t cool. Trucks were cool. Cool guys bought cool trucks. The really cool guys bought old trucks, perhaps with chuntering spark-plugless engines designed by a defunct tractor concern and shaking shifters jutting out of the center tunnel, with enough going wrong to keep their devoted owners poring over the engine compartment every other weekend with a Petzl lamp on the forehead and a dog-earned greasy Haynes manual resting on the air cleaner. As much as I tried to convince myself Maybelle was for work, she was equally if not more for proving something. That I was a rugged and resourceful man who needed not the luxuries of easy starts in the morning or modern, dependable brakes. So what if the clutch hydraulics would occasionally fail catastrophically and the valves were on the verge of slamming into the pistons. Aircon? That’s for soy latte betas. If the sweatin’ don’t kill me, the unfettered unfiltered diesel fumes and complete lack of safety standards would. We die like men.

That masochistic American Badass nonsense didn’t last long. I still have the truck, and will always love it to death, but by mid-2018 I realized that if I wanted to actually get work done rather than look like I was getting work done while in truth putting most of the actual work into keeping the heap on the road, I really ought to get a van. A modern van. Maybe Ken was right. By then I was making enough money to afford a vehicle made not only within this century, but within this model refresh cycle. I found a handsome 2014 Ford Transit Connect at CarMax and snapped it up. As the “baby” Transit, it drove like a car but worked like…a small van. I won’t say too much about Vanna White, as I’ve written about her plenty on here before, but she fulfilled her duties admirably in her three-year tenure. I just needed more.

When Galpin Ford called me in the summer of 2021 gunning to buy Vanna amid the paralyzing chip shortage and run on used cars, I wasn’t actively in the market, but I was bumping up against the limit of the small Connect’s capabilities with some of the grander organ rigs I was hauling around. The thought of upgrading my work truck scenario had been swimming in the back of my mind. I dreamed about upfitting a full-sized Transit or even a flat-nosed cabover Isuzu box truck as a mobile workshop. Now with Galpin on the horn, the wheels were, so to speak, turning. They had a few full-sized, medium-roof, long-wheelbase Transits in stock, which was the goldilocks configuration for me—not so ridiculously big to prevent it from parking at Ralphs or Sugar Fix Boba Café, but still a significant upgrade from the little Connect. Long story short, I ended up trading Vanna White in for Fat Amy, a 2020 Transit 250 with only 500 miles on the clock. It was twice the size, thrice the price, and all business. Where Vanna was fun and nippy, Amy was brooding and industrial. Perfect. I’ve improved it with a Detroit Truetrac rear end, Hella halogen driving lamps, and a come-along winch system for easy cargo loading. I plan on eventually building it out with a folding work bench in back, house battery power, a front-end leveling kit, better tires, perhaps a transmission tune, the list goes on.

As I adjusted to life with the big rig, something became clear. Ken was right. If you want a truck, you buy a truck. If you need a truck, you buy a van. The Europeans had this figured out long ago. Yes, if you need to tow something massive like a fifth-wheel trailer, an earthmover, or a building, you’ll need a pickup or beyond. But for most of your quotidian duties, a van makes a lot more sense. This, friends, is why vans are the last honest vehicles in America. They are the purest, most unsullied virgin essence of the concept of a work vehicle we’ve got left. Whereas pickup trucks have mutated from once simple, purpose-built work vehicles into overwrought Madison-avenue-macho luxury mall brawlers, projecting the image of hard work without doing much actual hard work, vans are the ones getting it done, the beautifully unglamorous omnipresent necessities of our very society that they are.

Why are they the answer, the Tao, the True Vine? They’re enclosed. They can be outfitted in infinite ways, with rear seats, toolboxes inside or out, roof racks, work benches, refrigeration units, satellite uplinks. They can be a mobile home. They haven’t fallen victim to the ludicrous, unsustainable horsepower and torque wars that have beset the pickup world for the last twenty-plus years—squeezing more and more store-bought-masculinity bragging rights out of engines that have to meet stricter and stricter emissions regulations while still keeping them reasonably sized and priced and reliable and efficient is an engineering meatball that gets spicier with each passing model year. We’re pushing the envelope of what can be wrung out of a given displacement without turning it into smoldering magma. Electrification is really the only way forward, unless Joe Subprime Loan next door can stomach the dreaded emasculation of having his next bro-dozer busted back down to 180 horsepower in some sort of modern-day Malaise Era reset. People will never question your self-esteem or think you insecure when they see you in a van. Ultimately, trucks’ image inflation has also brought about a concomitant price inflation. Decently-optioned pickups, both new and used, are beyond the comfortable reach of many workaday folks now. Even sensible trucks like the Tacoma are up there. Transits and Sprinters aren’t cheap transportation, but the Cool Tax hasn’t really taken a hold of them. Yet.

It’s kind of an allegory for the working class in this country. There’s a strange dichotomy afoot. At once, we revere and revile the Worker. Politicians on either side of the aisle enjoy co-opting the tradition and identity of hard work that courses through our collective American veins, bloviating about how they’re Just Like Us, using it to gin up popular support for policies generally antithetical to the well-being of regular folk—but that’s for another day. People of all stripes identify with the Worker when it’s advantageous, and in the same breath scoff at those less well-off or with less important-sounding jobs than theirs. Pickups, particularly those of the 3/4-ton or greater domestic variety, embody the romanticized image of the Hardworking American™ that we love, while vans are the actual hardworking American at which we turn up our noses. We love our essential workers, right up until the Amazon delivery—brought to you by a Transit—gets delayed or the Starbucks order gets mixed up. We buy a pickup truck with more torque than a semi-tractor had in 1969 to go food shopping and haul a tent trailer that could be pulled with a bicycle to the lake on the weekends because this is America, God dammit. Work? Ha! Leave that to the immigrants.

While everyone else postures, the Workers go quietly about their work. The 3.5 liter gasoline V-6 in Fat Amy is there not to bolster anyone’s ego or make anyone’s pants feel tighter. It doesn’t have a chrome badge on the doorsill to announce itself to the world. It just moves the thing down the road like an engine should. You start it with a key. Fat Amy doesn’t have Apple CarPlay, a touchscreen, or even cruise control, for Christ’s sake. You put goods in it that need to go from one place to another, and to that other place those goods shall go. In an age where everything has to be part of some sort of movement or philosophy or lifestyle, it’s not trying to prove anything to anyone. Though physically built in Kansas City in 2020, spiritually, it’s from a time when things just—were. And that’s why, as the last honest vehicles in America, vans are on the very verge of total gentrification.

Ah, yes. Like with everything else that was once good and pure, the young well-meaning white folks have swooped in and ignited the long, slow burn of colonization. Armed with GoPros and tens of thousands of Turkish Instagram bot followers, they’ve set the #vanlife top spinning. Everywhere you turn, every other Reel you see, another Chief Creative Officer or Regional Deputy Director In Charge of Solutions or good old-fashioned trustafarian and his OnlyFans yogi wife have given it all up to live the life of Minimalism and scratch the plaque-psoriasis itches of Wanderlust and internet fame all at the same time. Hey, we should all be so lucky, right? If I could do everything that I do to make a living all from inside my phat whip, I’d be inclined to do it myself. For about five days, until not knowing where my next crap would be taken or if my house would have its wheels stolen by a basehead in Yakima got too old.

All of this cynical grousing is to say that while the tainting of the humble van may not look quite like what happened with pickup trucks, it is happening before our eyes. Though most of the commercial vans seen on dealer lots now are stripped-out fleet-spec mules, dollars to donuts it won’t be long before bourgeois factory-built Lifestyle sanctuaries start monopolizing floorplans and Pat the Plumber has to wait six months for the KC plant to build his chassis cab. No need for those skilled independent upfitter shops anymore—there will be Vanlife trim packages. And we’re not talking those garish boomer RVs, no. These will be trendy and aesthetic and vibes, with “beautiful design” and a K-cup machine. The ad copy will be unbearable. Lots of shit about Minimalism. Lots of privileged girls in sweaters. Of course, by the time Dearborn, Stuttgart, and wherever the hell Ram’s headquarters are this week cotton on to the trend, the zeitgeist will likely have moved on, but the damage will be done. People will judge you for having a van. Prices will bloom. A base-model Transit is already appreciably more than a base-model F-150. Sprinters? Oil sheikh territory. Mark my words, it’s on. It’s like The Kinks said. God Save the Village Van.

So if you want a truck, buy a truck, I suppose. But if you need a truck, buy a van, and buy it now, while you still can.

Postscript. This is all a bit of sarcastic fun, and I’d like to go on record as saying that I’d give my left cooyan for something like the well-outfitted custom 4×4 Sprinter that my sister and brother-in-law are having built by Outside Vans of Portland, Ore. In the end, no van will ever be uncool to me. And I still love trucks.

Author: Bunny Butler

I'm the last of the good old-fashioned steam-powered trains.

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